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"Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." -- E.B. White
I can go for a long time without hearing a comic describe another comic as a hack. The term "hack" isn't exclusive to comics; so a non-comic, upon hearing the term, wouldn't be mystified as to its meaning.
Among those comics who started after 1993 or so, the term has come to be a verb meaning "to steal." This would be wrong. People who use hack this way sound ridiculous. They should use the word "steal." They make their living with words; the least they can do is try to be precise. I wasted a minute or two trying to figure out why a perfectly good word like "steal" isn't used. Too harsh? Too final? Too judgemental? Let's hope so! If you're going to accuse someone of theft (another great word), your intent is to be harsh, final and judgemental! "The sonofabitch stole my bit." leaves no doubt as to what happened. Clarity helps your cause. There can be no question that what took place was reprehensible. Substituting "stole" with "hacked" obscures meaning, diffuses emotions. The speaker sounds as though he's using slang for the sake of using slang. At least to my ear.
Just to make sure I wasn't missing something, I cracked open the dictionary. Under the word "hackneyed," I found "hack-neyed, adj : lacking in freshness or originality." and, under "hack," I found this: "a person who works solely for mercenary reasons; esp.: a writer working solely for commercial success"
I'm no linguist, but I gotta conclude that the noun came from the adjective. To put it another way, "hack" is merely short for "a writer who churns out hackneyed material." This is plausible and entirely understandable. After all, when it comes to saying demeaning things about artists and others we hold in contempt, who has that kinda time? We've got places to go! Things to do! Call him a hack and be done with it! Why sugarcoat it in flowery language?!
I'm not quite sure of the difference between "freshness" and "originality," so I'll take hack to mean one who lacks originality and leave it at that. It remains one of the more serious charges that one comic can level at another. There are few things that one could say about a comic (or any kind of artist) that strike more directly at the heart of important matters. There are few good reasons for engaging in the creation of art if you don't intend to distinguish yourself, in significant ways, from other artists.
"Humor is richly rewarding to the person who employs it. It has some value in gaining and holding attention, but it has no persuasive value at all." --John Kenneth Galbraith
I said at the outset of this column that I seldom hear the charge of hackdom. Not seldom enough, however. But, like any pejorative, it loses its power if it's used carelessly. To folks who might use it in the future, I say spend it wisely. Make sure it's appropriate before you roll out the heavy gun that is "hack." If you can't help yourself, try this: when you're confronted with an act that you are tempted to label as a hack, attempt to find other things you don't like about this person's act or presentation. You might find out that he/she isn't a hack so much as an act that merely rubs you the wrong way. In the distant past, I was tempted to call someone a hack, but I stopped short and concluded that he/she just wasn't my cup of tea. (Or should that be "cup of tee hee?") There was no denying the originality and the honesty of the comic in question, I just didn't dig him. It was a revelation.
I've seen a lot of writing and posturing lately that attempts to set forth, in rather definite terms, exactly what a comic must do to be considered a good comic. (And conversely, if a comic doesn't achieve these goals, if he doesn't strive for certain things, he doesn't deserve to call himself a comic.) Example: If a comic doesn't make the audience think, he's not doing his job. If he merely makes merry and fails to send everyone home with a moral, he's a disgrace to the corps and he's a major part of why standup comedy will a.) never achieve the status of "art" or b.) fade into oblivion along with other popular forms of entertainment like mah jhong and flagpole sitting. This is a pointless pursuit, engaged in by critics and, most embarassingly sometimes, by comics themselves. Mind you, I wouldn't dare tell a comic not to attempt to enlighten, if that is his forté. But failure to follow that path does not make a comic any less of a comic, nor does it make Mr. Enlightenment any more of one.
These same folks go one or two steps further and dismiss entire comedy sub-categories of standup as unworthy of anyone's time. According to these arbiters of standup worth, anyone who uses a guitar in the course of his act is hopelessly gauche. A comic who speaks with a Southern accent is branded as a "goober comic" incapable of crafting an act that is little more than a slobbering pandering to the baser instincts of a comedy club crowd. He uses props? He should really try to write jokes instead of relying on visual aids. An impressionist? Don't get me started! Mimicry is for children or the feeble-minded.
Our interview this month is Jim Morris, an extraordinary impressionist and a clever writer. I worked with him for a week at Stand-Up N.Y. back when Reagan was still president. I was very impressed and I raved about his act to anyone who would listen. However, I found myself supplementing the raves. I would tell people, "I just worked with this great impressionist...No, no, no! He's really funny! I mean, the impressions are dead on but he's also a great writer!" What's wrong with that picture? Why did I encounter this automatic dismissal of a performer merely because he uses impressions to engender laughs? Why this prejudice? Chances are good that Morris encountered such snobbery from his ostensible peers early on, so I don't think that what I've just said is big news to him. But if there was any hint of bitterness toward comics because of it, he betrayed none of it. During our week in Manhattan, I found him to be generous, even-tempered and enthusiastic about his work. And he displayed no negativity in his recent interview answers.
And, to this day, I don't prejudge an act based on how he approaches this standup beast. If I've never seen an act before, I am open-minded. To be sure, originality is always key. But I also find myself placing a premium on, for lack of a better word, honesty. If an act approaches the task of making a roomful of people laugh with a simplicity and a genuineness, I can't really complain. Even if the genuineness is faked (not as much of a contradiction as you might imagine) it's still a good thing. I'm not sure if anything else matters-- originality and honesty.
"Nothing is more curious than the almost savage hostility that humor excites in those who lack it." -- George Saintsbury
And the same goes for those who seek advice. If someone asks the questions "How should I do standup comedy? How should I write a joke? What is the best method for approaching standup?" I am at a loss. I'm not fighting any impulses to hand out detailed advice, either. And the vague advice nugget, "Be original and honest" is useless to the novice.
Drawing on my own experience, I recall that I never asked anyone how to write a joke or deliver one and very few people ever volunteered to tell me how (thank God for that)! I started out as a "sick" comic-- they'd call me "edgy" now. I shifted to strictly observational but slightly twisted then to bang-bang one-liner guy. Then I found an odd combination of all of them. I recall other comics and audience members comparing me variously to Steven Wright, Jay Leno and Norm MacDonald. Why do I bring this up? Because I don't think that anyone should tinker with a novice in those crucial early stages. And I don't think anyone should make any experienced comic think he might be on the wrong track, either. Which is precisely where a lot of this hack talk might lead.
A fellow comic called me a hack last month. It was in an email and it stung for a nanosecond. It was in that sliver of time that I took in the word and asked myself the question "Am I a hack?" and the answer came back, necessarily, in less than a nanosecond: No. Why was there any doubt? I'll tell you why: If anyone calls himself an artist, he is almost constantly asking himself the question "Am I creating original work?" It isn't so much an expression of doubt as a verification that the process is still proceeding at an acceptable pace and with acceptable results. The moment any artist ceases asking the question is the moment he ceases being an artist.
He was angry. He was looking to hurt. He didn't even believe it himself. It all arose from a disagreement. Taken in that context, it was understandable. Unforgiveable, mind you, but understandable.
An artist is anyone who takes pride in doing a job well." --Unknown
Of course, you all can do what you like. You can mutter through clenched teeth about the obvious pandering of this act or the shameless physical antics of that act. You can tell anyone who'll listen that a comic should sit at the word processor for at least two hours a day, cranking out standup gold. You can look down on a comic who eschews current events in favor of song parodies. But be advised that you're not doing anybody any favors when all is said and done. The better approach might be to find the good in all of your fellow comics and, where none seems, to your mind, to exist, remain silent. If you see a clear injustice it's your duty to point it out. But, we're all in this together and we're all better off encouraging each other and leaving the tearing down to the critics and the drunks...and the occasional lunkheaded club owner who just doesn't get it.
As for me, I intend to continue publishing this magazine. I intend to present to my fellow comics and to the standup fans who read this magazine tales of standup comics and what they do to pay the bills, express themselves and how they got to where they find themselves today. We'll try to be values-neutral, as the new age, doublespeak folks might put it. Oh, sure, our columnists will occasionally indulge in advising comics on how they might proceed, but it's rarely specific advice on how to perform. And we won't offer much in the way of criticism, but I hope that we frequently point the way to buried treasure.
"I have always held that the rod with which popular
fancy invests criticism is properly the rod of divination: a
hazel-switch for the discovery of buried treasure, not a
birch-twig for the castigation of offenders." --Arthur Symons
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